ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 51, February 2000


Conservation versus change?

Archaeology can help society balance the two goals, writes George Lambrick

How should society balance the apparently opposing goals of conservation and modernisation? This is a question that should be in the minds of politicians, as heritage policy is to be reviewed this year across government in England - and perhaps also in Scotland and Wales.

Archaeologists are sometimes accused of being 'against change', but nothing could be further from the truth. Without change there can be no history. Change is archaeologists' bread and butter - we look for it, study it, explain it, even enjoy it. We like to take a detached view of it.

But what of social and environmental change in the present? Do we apply the same detached, long-term view to it that we apply to our studies of the past? If we were to transport ourselves back into the past, what attitude would we have taken then to the changes that we now find so interesting as showing the development of society, the environment and different ways of living?

Would we have allowed all those drastic alterations that have made so many of our buildings the interesting records of past architectural change that we value today? Would we have countenanced the devastation caused by the creation of some of our greatest parks and grandest buildings?

Rural Ireland

Last year I had a holiday on the west coast of Ireland, and not having been there for 25 years, I was struck by the proliferation of large Spanish hacienda-type houses and bungalows replacing traditional rural houses and cottages. At one level this was rather ghastly and depressing - a rapid deterioration of the historic character of the countryside, with the imposition of an architecture that seems out of character with rural Ireland.

But at another level - taking an archaeological view - I could see how this replacement of the old with the new is reflecting the history of our own time, in this case the effects of the European Community on growing prosperity in rural Ireland. Archaeologists of the future will recognise a distinct physical legacy of new styles of building replacing the old, yet respecting old property divisions and settlement patterns. They will no doubt find these changes fascinating. After all, do we object to the imposition of Roman villa architecture on the culture of Iron Age Britain?

Of course, this argument is a slippery slope. In theory, given a long enough time-perspective and a sufficiently detached view, as archaeologists we should not mind what or how much change happens as long as enough is left behind to unravel the story.

So what is it that actually makes us so much more conservationist than this clinical archaeological attitude might suggest? It is our appreciation of the historic environment as part of our cultural roots - our cultural habitat as people, not as archaeologists.

People's sense of their cultural roots - a recognition of a place having a strong patina of age and strong local identity - is often instinctive. Put someone in an old tree-lined sunken lane or in the middle of an ancient meadow or common, or a village full of an ecclectic mix of vernacular architecture, or even a Victorian industrial suburb, and they will know that they are in a place with a strong historic character. They may be hard pressed to explain why, and yet there will be no doubt that it adds to their quality of life.

This is not because such places are designated or protected through some academic scale of values which shows they are important for this reason or that, or because they allow us to understand societies that are dead and gone. It is the sense of stability, of familiarity, of local distinctiveness and diversity that are most universally valued.

This leads us to a recognition of the varying historic character of the whole environment - a recognition that some places have changed more and faster than others, and in different ways.

Holistic view

It is only recently, however, that archaeologists in Britain have started to take this more holistic approach to the historic character of the landscape seriously. The first area where an attempt was made to map the 'continuous mosaic' of the historic landscape on a large scale was Cornwall (see BA, July 1996). There, it has already started to prove an invaluable planning tool, helping to promote the conservation of characteristics that local people and planners instinctively recognise as having value.

In order to understand which aspects of the historic environment really matter to people, we need more research into local perspectives - as has been done with some conservation area and village appraisals. The approach could be applied to whole urban areas to help steer the scale and character of urban regeneration in ways that sensitively revitalise places that should retain their historic character, and create new places that future generations will cherish in areas that can absorb more drastic change.

With the Government's recognition of quality of life, citizenship and involvement of communities as key goals of sustainable development, and with wide ranging reviews of policy towards culture and heritage in the offing, we now have a new chance to influence the way we shape current change to create a worthwhile past for the present and for future generations.

George Lambrick is the Director of the CBA

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© Council for British Archaeology, 2000